Under the Mozambican sun

Our slow-motion hairpin around the African peninsula meant that we were now on our way towards Mozambique. After spending a couple of fantastic and relaxing days in Joburg with friends, we caught the early morning bus out east towards Maputo. The bus ride was pleasantly uneventful with only one rest stop before the Border. The panicked hustle of getting the visa in Joburg had paid off, as all the immigration formalities went smoothly. We got into Maputo late-eveningish, and as planned, the driver from our hostel was there to pick us and a French family up. We were famished, so after a quick check-in and look around, we went to the nearest open restaurant which, of course – and to my delight, was Indian.

We had a couple of days in Maputo that we spent exploring the city. The town is quite compact, so on the first day we walked around the CBD finding food at a Peri Peri chicken place which was simply phenomenal – arguably the best grilled chicken we’ve ever eaten. We both decided that Nandos just couldn’t cut it anymore. We walked down to the coastline and around the southern edge of town, completely, yet innocently, ignoring a ministry of defense campus which led to evil glares and getting scolded by a security officer/guard. We walked amongst old buildings with narrow sidewalks, moving cars weaving between the parked ones. The city reminded me of the old neighborhoods in Mumbai where I visited my grandparents as a child. The balconies had simple wrought iron work and encased anyone within, making for an effective clothes’ line. The following day, we visited the fish market, which was on the north side of town. The market is setup so you can purchase the seafood, and has a few restaurants outside that, for a nominal fee, would cook up the purchased seafood. Our taxi driver Luis (pronounced with a “sh” sound), set us up with one of the vendors who was going to help us pick the menu. We had arrived a little early, so the market was still getting setup. We spent some time people-watching; there was a sparse group of people along the beach on there knees seemingly praying. We later found out that this is an outdoor, seaside church where worshippers come to pray in the peace offered by the ocean. We also found ourselves wondering, and somewhat concerned as to why there was absolutely no smell of seafood in the air. Once the market opened, we walked in to find the cleanest and most odor-and-fly-free fish market we’d ever seen. With the help of our chef, we bought entirely too much food for lunch – fish, prawns, crabs and calamari. After stuffing our faces with this cornucopia-of-the-seas, Luis drove us around town showing us the old railway station, which, although allegedly designed by Mr. Eiffel, is actually not. The railway station is a beautiful green and white building, with intricate iron works holding up the platform roof. The terminal has been voted one of the most beautiful in the world.

The next day started early with us boarding a shuttle to Tofo beach. After the dictated wait at the junta to fill the bus up to the brim, we set off northwards. The bus trip was a stop-and-go affair, dropping off and picking up passengers along the way. The road hugged the coastline for almost the entirety of the drive, with certain parts closer to the sea than others. This meant that we were driving through some beautiful countryside. The forest we drove through here was a collection of coconut trees, banana plantations, and entire acres covered in fronds heavy with fruit. We finally reached the town of Inhambane in the late afternoon where most passengers alighted, the small group left continued on for another half an hour ride to Tofo beach.

The plans for Tofo beach were simple: relaxation. Our hostel was right on the beach which made this plan quite an easy one to follow-through. The beach was a long sandy crescent which you could walk down to get in and out-of-town, dotted with hotels along the way and hawkers selling curios, coconuts and cashews to all the tourists. We booked our first dive of the trip for the following morning and went to a small restaurant (which was basically someones courtyard) for a delicious lunch. After that we wandered aimlessly around town and then lazed around the beach for the rest of the day. In the evening, we had heard of a small live-music venue which we visited. The band played some spanish and Portuguese songs on a deck by the ocean. The breeze was chilly and the morning was going to be an early one so we decided to leave. On our walk back to the hostel, we stumbled across a small bar/club place that was setup like a roadside foodstall with a makeshift entryway. The place was outdoors and had music blaring through a surprisingly – for the venue – good set of speakers so we decided to hang out a little longer. A group of children slowly assembled “outside” and started dancing to the tunes, while “inside” tourists danced and drank their night away. The “outside” being on the street meant the few vehicles that passed by, had to slow down and avoid running over the revelers. The whole sight was quite memorable, but the scuba dive trip the next morning meant we had to get some rest.

We dove at a site called Croc Rock which was a short but extremely bumpy boat ride away. It had been over a year since our last dive so it took some time to re-familiarize. Once the equipment was checked and donned, the comfort levels definitely went up. The dive was a fairly shallow 15m, with good visibility and comfortably warm waters. We slowly made our way around the bottom the whole time watching a myriad of reef fish swimming about. We saw an eel crawled up below a rock, and anemone and coral with their respective residents within. A few boxfish and puffers drifted about, a stone fish with its poisonous stings sat on the floor, and huge schools of coral fish swam about in unison. We saw a couple of crocodile fish, which is what the dive site is named for, they used to be quite ubiquitous here but their numbers have dropped in recent years. At one point, our dive master started stirring up the sand, by flapping water above it, on the seabed. In doing so, he revealed a stingray that had hidden itself underneath. The ray swam about a bit, found a cozy spot and burrowed itself by using its flat body to scoop sand up around and over it, to complete its camouflage. We had to make our way up a little earlier than the rest of the group – not having dived in a while had us breathing a little heavier and we used our air much faster than we hoped.

We woke up early the next morning and walked down to the market to catch a chaappa (minibus/matatu) to Inhambane. We were heading to Vilankulos today, and we’d been told it would be a long ride over involving a chaappa ride to Inhambane, a ferry over to Maxixe followed by a bus to Vilankulos, and then finally a walk or tuktuk to the Hostel. The chaappa from Tofo was late as expected, and on our way to Inhambane, this normally 12-seater vehicle was, at one point, packed with 24 people (that we could see/count from our spot with our backpacks in our laps). After several stop-and-gos, all of varying lengths and with as many people disembarking as entering, we reached Inhambane and had a short walk to the ferry. The ferryman somehow secured our bags to the tarp roof of the ferry, and we secured ourselves on one of the bench seats. The ferry, like the rest of the transportation in the region, had to be full before we were able to leave. This took a little under an hour since we were almost the first ones onboard. The ferry ride was smooth, meandering around the low-tide exposed sand banks in the early morning sun on a perfectly still bay. On the other side, we had to pay for our luggage, which seemed more like extortion than an actual baggage fee, so although fuming with discontent we paid the ferryman. We had no success finding a bus to Vilankulos, the company we were looking for did have an office there, but the employee was more interested in putting us on a chaappa instead of selling us bus tickets. We figured the gentleman was trying to play middle man and charge us a premium so we walked to the chaappa junta and found a ride to Vilankulos (without said premium). The ride to Vilankulos was stop and go, with many passengers boarding and disembarking along the way, but we never got to the 24 people as on the previous ride, possibly due to the length of the ride. This chaappa and bus network that runs up and down the countryside is quite an important lifeline for the Mozambican economy. The type of goods and cargo that is carried around varies from building materials to agricultural produce but other services are performed by these humble, and often overused, vehicles. We noticed money transfers, postal services and even food deliveries being made, all of which run on a trust system (the drivers don’t know the customers but make deliveries, and some deliveries are packages left under trees).

We made it to Vilankulos in the early afternoon and walked the last few kilometers to the hostel, after we could have sworn that the price of the tuk-tuk had to be higher for us just because we weren’t locals (we were proven wrong once we confirmed with the hostel). We checked in and then booked our next set of dives before getting dinner at this small restaurant, recommended by the owner of the hostel. It wasn’t very well-known and the restaurant owner was not able to do the necessary advertising to make it known to tourists visiting the area, so the hostel owner tried doing her part for local businesses. The restaurant, after we got lost and finally asked someone for directions, was behind a small shop in a family home. It was in a courtyard area, with cement flooring and just enough space for two tables over laid with bright kaplana cloth (the traditional sarong-type wrap-around that women wore and kept for various uses during the day). They covered the regularly open sides of the small restaurant area with thatch mats and it was surprisingly neat. We waited as a young boy came to take our order on behalf of his aunt who owned the place. We had a three course meal, starting with local beer and the equivalent of Cheetos/Niknaks, had crab and local greens in a peanut sauce for our main course and were served fruits for dessert. It was all incredibly delicious, simple and home-made seafood.

The plan for the day was to wander around town, but upon waking up we realized that the ocean, that had been a few feet away from the hostel, had suddenly decided to retreat a good several hundred feet. So instead, we wandered around the ex-seabed for a little while. This exceptionally low-tide had left behind pools of water in the sands and we walked around and through a lot of them. The pools of water were teeming with life, from small hermit crabs to tiny fish and snails. Boats and dhows had been left temporarily marooned on this new beach. As we walked further out, the pools became larger and eventually we were walking through knee deep waters in a field of seaweed. Here we re-met Sergio, a local who had a small curio shop and a home-restaurant. Earlier, we politely declined an offer to come to his home for a meal, which he intended to fish for at that time. He was wading through the water searching for clams. After observing him walk around and reach into the water with handfuls of clams for a while, we asked him how to find them and he showed us. He used his feet and the base of his toes to dig into the sand until he felt small rock-like objects, then just stuck his hand into the ground, burrowed around for a second and picked them up. We started off slow, but eventually had a several handfuls of clams that we gave Sergio as thanks for the lesson.

We had booked a two tank dive, that took us out to the Bazaruto island in the morning. The day started off with a 45-minute boat ride out to the island, before low-tide. We sailed past the islands of Magaruque and Benguerra on our way to Bazaruto. We traveled with a very nervous girl, who didn’t know how to swim, accompanying her fiance on his dives. She would stay put in the boat until he returned from the ocean. She had her hair done the previous day, which given the methodology of taking a speedboat from the beach and bypassing high waves, was a pretty bad idea. ¬†The boat calmed down a bit, and turned towards the shore and went between the small inlet bordered by Bazaruto and Benguerra. Here, a large sand-dune flows into the sea, and part of it has been undercut by the currents. We dropped of some of our copassengers here for snorkelling and the rest of us went on to the first dive site – Surgery. The dive was slightly deeper and warmer than the one in Tofo Beach. The dive started off in a small area with a few coral fish. As we swam on over a small outcropping, a large solitary green turtle swam out of it’s hiding spot and swam away from us. Having never seen turtles before this was quite an exciting sight. We continued the dive through an assortment of fish and anemone. The terrain was a mix of rocky outcroppings mixed with an array of coral: mostly laminar with other types thrown in. We spotted another turtle, but it was at quite a distance from us and swam away as soon as it saw us. A few sea urchins and starfish, and shrimp and sea-cucumbers later, we were ready to head back to the boat.

We went back to Bazaruto island for lunch. After a quick meal, we walked up the sand dune – having Namibia flashbacks the whole way up except while wearing full wetsuits. We wouldn’t have been able to take our wet wet suits off in the sand and put them back on easily, so with our wet suits half hanging, we trekked the dune feeling like seals out of water. The tide had gone out during our dive exposing sandbanks and turning the shallow parts of the bay, due to low-tide, different shades of blue-green. As we climbed up, the sand-water mixture made for streaks of yellows, blues and greens below, and a single boat stranded on the sands. As we came over the crest, our appreciation for the island completed changed, the sand dune met the ocean on one side, while on the other side was a lush green forest. Goats grazed in a grassy patch below which betrayed the illusion of uninhabitability. From here, we could clearly see the Benguerra island and the small inlet that formed in between. Amazed, we made our way back down to the boat and set off for the second dive at the Fish Bowl.

The dive site was by an opening in the barrier reef that formed off the island. We started out in a small area of coral and made our way around to the opening in the reef. As we came around a pair of grey reef sharks were circling by the inlet. In our preoccupation with the young sharks, we ignored the marked uptick in the current speed, and both of us were swept away several feet before regaining ground. The dive master signaled us to grab onto the rocks below and crawl our way back to the group. The rocks below were covered in pink and green anemone-like structures which were gelatinous and had soft delicate tentacles. They weren’t poisonous, but we had to be careful not to squash them. The current was extremely strong and even swimming at full strength was not sufficient to stay steady. Finally, after much effort and help from the dive master, we made it back to the spot where the sharks and the others were. A large camouflaged grouper sat on the seabed about a foot in front of us, seemingly watching the sharks like the rest of us. After watching the sharks for a while, we crawled past the opening and were finally able to let go of our handholds and swim freely. Amongst the plethora of fish, we spotted more eel, a lobster and crocodile fish. On our way back to the boat, we spotted an octopus undulating on the seafloor, who, upon noticing us, instantaneously blended itself into the background coral and rock. As a sort of finale to a wonderful pair of dives, a group of jellyfish floated past us during our ascent to the surface. We had a quick stop at Benguerra island to stretch our feet, catch our breath, and for the crew to sort out the equipment. The boat ride back was mostly uneventful, except for a very brief Dugong (Manatee) sighting.

We had gone into town the day before, walked around and had lunch at a small cafe. There was another beach past a small headland, where the waters had not hidden away as much. So, after the dives we walked into town again to buy our bus ticket back to Maputo for the next morning. On our way to the bus station, we stopped by the Mercado Municipal, the town market. The place was bustling with activity with vendors selling everything from foodstuff, to produce and fish and housewares and clothing. Shweta wanted some kaplanas. We followed instructions given to us by one of the dive instructors and walked through an alley way of fish, shoes and vegetables. Finally, we reached the area where tailors had a range of bright colored wraps with intricate designs.  Instead of having walls, the store was covered entirely in kaplanas, folded neatly and hanging to show off the different designs on offer. After making our purchase, we went and bought our tickets for the early morning bus to Maputo, and had dinner before calling it a night.

We had booked a tuk-tuk to take us into town the next morning, to avoid lugging our bags early in the morning. We had a bit of a scare when the tuktuk didn’t show up on time and we started gearing up to make what would be a 30 minute trek. The tuk-tuk pulled up right as we were unwrapping our backpack covers. The bus left promptly at 5am, which was a surprise, and we set off towards Maputo. Unlike the chaappas, the bus did not make too many stops and we did not need to make any changes along the way, so we were in Maputo by the evening. The next morning we were booked on another long bus ride back to Joburg, with a flight to Nairobi the following morning. Just thinking about the back-to-back travel had us exhausted, so we befittingly wrapped up our time in Mozambique with a quiet dinner at the same Peri Peri chicken place from our first day here.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Chandrashekhar Vaidya says:

    Fascinating! This is sounding more and more like Sindabachya sat safari!


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